Women of Wonder in Hiding: What Can Classic Science Fiction Offer Young Women?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Does classic science fiction have anything to offer to young readers, especially young women? In recent years I’ve read reviewers providing trigger warnings about older SF having no women writers, almost no female characters, claiming stories were rife with sexism and misogyny. How true are those charges?

I just finished listening to the new audiobook editions of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One edited by Robert Silverberg and The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A and The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2B edited by Ben Bova. When the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) formed in 1965 they began giving out annual awards called Nebulas. Members decided to vote for their favorite stories to create a series of anthologies that recognize the classic works of older science fiction published before the award era.

Out of 48 stories in the first three volumes, only three women writers—C.L. Moore, Judith Merril, and Wilmar H. Shiras—were included. C.L. Moore’s stories were as a coauthor with her husband Henry Kuttner, so only two stories were just by women. Until recently, I thought only one, but then I learned that Shiras was a woman. Is this evidence that women were excluded from science fiction?

Partners-in-Wonder-Women-and-the-Birth-of-Science-Fiction-1926-1965-by-Eric-Leif-DavinEric Leif Davin in his 2006 book, Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction 1926–1965, makes a well-documented case that women were not excluded as writers, editors, artists, in fandom, or as readers, and in most cases were welcomed. Davin carefully examined science fiction magazines from 1926–1965, finding 203 women writers who had published almost a thousand stories. It’s far from equality but showed more women participating than anyone previously thought. He also studied editorials, letters to the editors, book reviews, biographies, fanzines, con programs, histories, looking for clues to how women were accepted. Davin says there were a few men who personally opposed women coming into the genre, but for the most part, they were shouted down by other males. He also found women writers that couldn’t break into writing until they tried science fiction. Overall, Davin was convinced the genre was open to women professionally and as fans, and that women slowly entered the field well before the 1960s, a time many readers felt was the opening decade for women writers.

Decade Women Writers Stories
1920s 6 17
1930s 25 62
1940s 47 209
1950s 154 634

Partners in Wonder is a fascinating history. Unfortunately, it’s a shame it’s so damn expensive: almost $50 for the paperback, and just a few dollars cheaper for the Kindle edition. Evidently, it’s meant for the academic market, so it should be available at most university libraries. I wish that the Kindle edition was priced like a novel because it’s a readable history that corrects many myths and misconceptions about women in the genre. (A significant portion of this book can be read at Google Books.)

Children-of-the-Atom-by-Wilmar-H.-ShirasWhile reading Davin’s history I also read “In Hiding” by Wilmar H. Shiras, which first appeared in the November 1948 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction. John W. Campbell, the conservative editor of Astounding, said this when “In Hiding” was voted 1st Place in the readers poll, “Wilmar H. Shiras sent in her first science fiction story, ‘In Hiding.’ I liked it and bought it at once. Evidently, I was not alone in liking it: it has made an exceptional showing in the Lab here—the sort of showing, in fact, that Bob Heinlein, A. E. van Vogt and Lewis Padgett made with their first yarns. I have reason to believe we’ve found a new front-rank author.” Shiras wrote four more stories in the series to create a fix-up novel, Children of the Atom (1953 Gnome Press). Many older fans fondly remember that novel, even if they didn’t know Shiras was a woman. (I thought Wilmar was the male version of Wilma.) Shiras only wrote a handful of stories after that, and then disappeared. Why?

In Hiding” is about a school psychologist discovering a brilliant boy named Tim who hid behind his B-average grades. Thirteen-year-old Tim eventually reveals in confidence to the psychologist he has several secret identities, even making money publishing stories and essays, as well as completing several college correspondence degrees. Tim hid his intelligence because at three he learned that other people, young and old, resented people smarter than themselves. I wondered while reading this story if Wilmar Shiras was using her story as a metaphor for how women hid their intelligence from men. The second story, “Opening Doors,” features a young girl. She had to hide her intelligence by pretending to be insane.

Partners in Wonder convinced me that women writers were welcomed by the science fiction community. Most women were not interested in science fiction. But back then, most people weren’t interested in science fiction. It was not socially acceptable to read science fiction before Star Trek (1966) and Star Wars (1977). It was a shunned subculture, considered geeky,  nerdy, uncool, and only pursued by social zeroes.

Which brings me back to my original question: What does classic science fiction have to offer young readers today, especially young women? Most bookworms prefer new stories and books. Classic science fiction is no more popular than classic literature with young readers. But classics have always appealed to some readers? Why?

In a popular Facebook group devoted to science fiction, I’ve read several accounts by young women listing their favorite books, and sometimes they are classic science fiction, even titles by authors who get trigger warnings about being sexist or misogynistic. I’ve asked them if they don’t have gender concerns, and some of them have told me not everything is about gender. And it is true, much of classic science fiction is about ideas, ignoring gender, sex, and romance. Modern science fiction stories by men and women writers can deal with gender and readily present female characters, but then gender is a popular subtext to all kinds of fiction today. Is it fair to single out SF’s past when other genres were just as sexist in their past? We’ve all changed, and we will all continue to change.

Astounding-Science-Fiction-March-1950-with-Shiras-getting-the-coverI believe one reason young people read old science fiction is to study those changes, and study how people in the past looked at their future, our present. It’s quite revealing to learn what doesn’t change and what does, and why. Another reason to read classic SF is to search for all those pioneer women writers who were hiding in plain sight. In a recent Book Riot essay, “Women Who Imagined the Future: Science Fiction Anthologies by Women” I listed six new and seven out-of-print books that collected stories by women writing science fiction. I don’t believe any of those anthologists discovered Wilmar H. Shiras, and I wonder just how many of Davin’s 203 women writers are yet to be rediscovered? Reading their stories will tell us how women of wonder imagined us, their future. Have we failed them, or lived up to their hopes?

Listening to all three volumes of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame showed me not all science fiction stories considered classic by science fiction writers in the 1960s are still classic today. I wonder if the SFWA voted today would they pick an entirely different lineup of the best SF stories of 1926–1964, and maybe include far more women writers. “In Hiding” was my favorite story from volume 2B, and I wrote about why at Worlds Without End. I hope it gets included in some future feminist SF anthology, and I hope Children of the Atom gets reprinted.

We should not ignore the past, even if it’s offensive, but study older pop culture to see how we’ve grown. We should continually search the past for the pioneers whose anticipated who we’d become, the one that resonates with our best humanistic beliefs. A great example of this is “The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster. Not by a woman writer, or even a science fiction writer. But this 1909 story, featuring a woman protagonist who lives a life much like ours, living alone, but participating in a worldwide social network. She is essentially a blogger. Science fiction has never been about predicting the future, but about speculating about the fears we want to avoid, and the dreams we want to create in reality.

I wonder if the members of SFWA held a vote on classic stories in 2018 would any of the stories from the first three volumes of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame be selected? Time changes our view of what’s great about the past. What has fifty years taught us? Surely, we must see different classics today.

What we need are Hindsight Hugo and Nebula awards, where we give awards to stories that have stood the test of time. We could even have 100, 75, 50, 25-year trails, so in 2018 we’d reevaluate stories for 1918, 1943, 1968, 1993. If we had a 200-year trail, we could award a Hugo to Mary Shelley for Frankenstein.

Then every 25 years, the years would be reevaluated and we’d see what stories last, or which are rediscovered.

JWH

Wide Sargasso Sea–Sex and Madness

Jean Rhys explored the depths of the feminine mind living in a masculine dominated society.  Rhys wrote many stories and novels before becoming famous late in life with Wide Sargasso Sea, a literary prequel to  Jane Eyre by Charlotte BrontëWide Sargasso Sea (1966) can be read without any knowledge of Jane Eyre (1847), and is a completely stand-alone novel.  Jean Rhys gives a 20th century explanation to a mystery in a 19th century novel, and I can’t help believe that is to a certain degree psychologically, and maybe sexually, autobiographical.  Both Rhys and her character started out life in the West Indies and ended up living in England, both dying there.

jean rhys

Although Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea are novels, I wonder if we can read the minds of their authors in their stories.  Both books closely follow their characters, with Brontë anticipating stream-of-conscious and Rhys using multiple first person stream-of-conscious.  Even though Rhys makes Wide Sargasso Sea completely self-contained as a story, it does cleverly use Bertha Antoinetta Mason from Jane Eyre as a starting point for her story.  Both authors use their story to express views on the role of women in society, and to show how they are oppressed on many levels.  In a way, Rhys attacks Brontë for copping out, because she uses the tragedy of Bertha Antoinetta Mason/Antoinette Cosway to undermine Brontë’s happy ending.

Wide-Sargasso-Sea

A good part of Wide Sargasso Sea is it’s setting, and the history of life in the West Indies just after slavery was abolished.  First we follow Antoinette as a child so we can see her mother, a woman who has lost her husband, and must care for two children with no income.  We see her descend into insanity.  Antoinette grows up with black servants whose charity saves these poor whites, who the ex-slaves refer to as white cockroaches.  The black people of the story vary greatly in personality, ethnicity and ethicality.   The novel explores many themes, the prominent one deals with sex and madness, but it also deals with the confrontation of the races in the 1830s West Indies, and the lush tropical life there.  Nature is oppressive in both weather and the emotional moods it inspires in the people.  All the characters suffer from a languid disposition because of the atmosphere and biosphere.  In this steamy jungle locale there is a lot of sex, repression and sexual oppression going on.

I have not read Rhys other novels and stories, but from the introduction to my edition of Wide Sargasso Sea, she had lot of affairs that ended badly, and often lived at the bottom of society depended on the generosity of men that weren’t always good to her.  That’s why I felt her novel is autobiographical to a degree.  Rhys wasn’t locked in a room for years, but she did live in isolated exile for years.

I also feel Brontë used Jane Eyre to express her gender repression and desires.  In both books, women lives are contrasted with those of slaves and servants.  And I can’t wonder if Rhys felt contempt for Brontë when she gave Jane a happy ending with Edward Rochester.  Rochester is unnamed in Wide Sargasso Sea, but he’s shown with varying levels of sympathy, but ultimately he’s seen as cruel and self-serving.  He’s a tragic hero in Jane Eyre, but a tragic villain in Wide Sargasso Sea.

Another theme in Wide Sargasso Sea is Voodoo.  Christophine is an old black woman that cares for Antoinette her whole life before she goes to England.  She sides with the whites, and the blacks fear her, because they believe she has special powers.  Christophine always tells people they are foolish to think such thoughts, but we are given one powerful scene to believe otherwise.  Sex is always at the periphery of this novel, but it comes to the forefront at a hallucinatory peak in the story, where passion, madness, and maybe Voodoo all come together.

The Rochester character often tells the island people, both white and black that they don’t know how to hide their feelings, but he’s often surprised when they apparently can read his mind or predict his future.  Even the black children boldly state the fate of the white people with sharp obviousness that the Englishman finds unnerving.  At first this man is patronizing to the black people, defending them to his wife, but slowly he realizes they know more than he does, at least about their world, where he is an invader.

I wish I knew how much Rhys remembered of her island upbringing when she wrote this book.  Her first sixteen years were lived in the West Indies before she moved to England and Europe.  How much research did she do about the island life for the novel?  And most important of all, are there any novels written by people living in the islands in the 1830s?  How can we know if this 1966 novel represents a true picture of the West Indies in the 1830s?

Wide Sargasso Sea is on many Best Books lists.

 

JWH – 8/29/14

The Tyranny of Hormones

Why are tits so much more dazzling than anything else in reality?  I mean women’s tits.  And how do molecules in our brain make us think human breasts are the epitome of beauty, while convincing us that all other mammalian glands are gross?  Why aren’t guys mesmerized by cow udders?  Those hormones are some pretty amazing chemicals.

Thursday, a young women leaned over right in front of me to get something out of her backpack and a large vista of hanging breasts bulged in front of my eyes.  Evidently my heart is strong, because I didn’t have a heart attack.  As an old man of sixty, I am quite grateful for such unexpected revelations of evenly tanned globes of fatty flesh, but I have to wonder why my hormones are still active.  What’s the point?

My age, physical appearance and lack of wealth preclude any success with young women, or even women of my own age, and even though my hormones are more than willing, my equipment is unreliable at best, and my little swimmers are old and tired and probably couldn’t make it all the way to the egg anyway.  I’m sure my DNA can’t replicate like it once did.

Why won’t my reproductive hormones leave me alone?  I’ve been looking down women’s dresses for 60 years, why hasn’t it gotten old?

If my appetite hormones didn’t insist that weighing 235 pounds was so wonderful, maybe the tools of my sexual hormones would work better and I could at least attract sixty-year-old women.  But what’s the point?  I have no need of children, so why do my hormones keep insisting I reproduce?

Why do our hormones torment us so?  They make us moody and angry, or depressed and lethargic, or jumpy and nervous.  I suppose there might have been a time in my life when all my hormones worked in harmony, but that was long ago.  It’s just so pathetic to be old, bald and fat and having my hormones constantly whispering to my mind that I should go make some babies.  Even my sperm are laughing at that.

Why can’t I have reasonable hormones.  Why can’t I have sensible old man hormones instead of dirty old man chemistry?

And if I’m not having sex fantasies, I’ll be fantasizing about chocolate chip cookies.  Isn’t that bizarre?   It’s like being possessed by  demons.

Think of all the hormones it would be wonderful to have?  I want to be horny to write great novels.  Now that would be a useful urge for an old man.  It doesn’t require a lot of energy or sarcastic rejecting females.

My body is breaking down and I seriously need to lose some weight.  Yet, my inner chemistry insists on staying fat.  Where’s the biological logic in that?

Wouldn’t it be great if we were born with little knobs that allowed us to adjust our hormone levels.  I got two useless nipples.  Imagine if they had been dials for sex and hunger hormone levels.  Our whole culture has indoctrinated us to think sex is the most wonderful experience in all of nature.  But if we could turn off that urge would we think it so wonderful?  If we could turn down the sex dial to zero would we be miserable, or would we think, “Wow, peace of mind is better than a piece of ass.”

And how anorexic would we all be if we could dial down our hunger hormones?

Or if we could dial down the sex, would we all settle for being happy and fat?

JWH – 9/8/12

Mommy, I’ve Gotta Go To Number 3, Bad

Now that my friends and I are in our fifties I’m amazed that the differences between the sexes remain so baffling and mysterious, and still such a huge topic of conversation.  A lady friend reminded me of this recently when she asked, “Don’t men feel romantic like women do?”  She had gone through a bad divorce and was gearing up to reenter the battle of the sexes, and I think she was wary of being fooled again.  She leaned over and whispered embarrassedly, “You know, when a man is inside a women, when they’re having sex, don’t men feel a psychic bond with women?”

I told her I couldn’t answer for all men but I said it helps to picture men in simple terms.  “Remember when we were kids, and we needed to go to the bathroom?”

“Yes,” she replied surprised by the change of subjects.

“You’d say, ‘Mommy, I’ve got to go to number 1’ or ‘number 2.’”

“Yeah,” she said giving me an odd look.

“Well, sex for men is number 3.”

“That’s disgusting.  That’s the most horribly unromantic thing I’ve ever heard.  I don’t think it’s true.”

“Okay, think back to all your boyfriends and husbands.  How often did they want to have sex and how often did you want to have sex?”

She open her mouth to argue back immediately, and then paused, “OK, I can see what you mean.”

I’m reading a book called Why Women Have Sex by Cindy M. Meston and David M. Buss and it makes it abundantly clear that women are complicated, giving 237 reasons why women have sex.  As a male, I found it very informative, because it explained 237 reasons why I seldom got laid. 

Why Women Have Sex feels like a freshman survey textbook, and reading it suggests that both men, and women, will need graduate work, if not a doctorate before they will understand female sexuality.  There is no need to write a book about why men have sex.  Their physiology programs them to reproduce.  They feel this programming as a strong biological urge that requires release.  Thus, the reference to number 3.

My lady friend complained about science intruding into the topic.  “What about romance?”

“Some men are romantic and some are not,” I replied.  “But I don’t think it’s connected to sex, but I’m not sure.”  I went on to explain a story in the book Why Women Have Sex, which illustrates my point. 

I can’t remember the exact details, but the book described a small mammal that came in two species.  One was monogamous and one was not.  Scientists eventually found a chemical in the monogamous species that wasn’t in the other.  They injected the chemical into the life-long bachelor species, and they became monogamous. 

All I can tell my friend is maybe some men have a romantic gene and others don’t.  If women ever get an over-the-counter test for the monogamy hormone, guys we’re in trouble.  And what if science creates a monogamy pill?  Will men have to take their faithful drug every evening when their mates take their birth control pill?

I’ve talked to a number of women about this conversation and they all dislike it.  They don’t like science analyzing human nature.  One lady said she wanted men to be like my blogging friend Carl.  I was amazed at this because it was many months ago when a few women in the office read Carl’s comments to one of my blogs and they all immediately loved his romantic ways.  Evidently romantic guys are memorable.  Notice that my lady friend above never asked why men wanted sex, she just wanted to know if men were romantic like women.  If fact, she implied she didn’t want to believe that men were unromantic.

I’m reading Why Women Have Sex because women’s sexual urges are baffling, not as simple as going to number 3.  If women were like men, we’d all be mating like Bonobos.  If men were romantic like women, wouldn’t the world be very different?  That might be the answer to my friend. 

Women should be reading this book more than men because it explains why women love and hate men.  But time and again my lady friends are repelled by the details I relay to them from the book.  So I’ll suggest another topic for Meston and Buss.  They should write a book about why women hate scientific inquiries into romance.  Whenever I talk to a woman about relationships and suggest there might be a biological basis, most women get annoyed.  It’s anti-romantic. 

I know its terrible to generalize like this, but it does appear to be a common attitude among the women I know.  One lady friend gave me a clue though.  She said science might explain animal biology, but it can’t explain human behavior.  I wonder if this is a religious bias.  Are humans divine and unexplainable by research, and animals are lowly aspects of the physical world that can be explained.  It makes me wonder if romance and religion have similar biological causes, and for some people it’s territory that scientists shouldn’t explore. 

JWH – 12/22/9

The Gods of Vampires

Every vampire has a god, and since the advent of the novel, those gods have been writers.  Before the printing press, storytellers were the creators of vampires, and word of mouth published endless variations of vampires that spawned unique species of monsters in each culture and country.  Superstition and the love of the story kept the vampire immortal throughout the centuries.  It’s very easy to know each god of today’s vampire, because the names of their creators are famous, boldly printed across the books from which give them creation.

When did Sex in the City urban women deem vampires fuckworthy?  And most of all, when did American heartland save-myself-for-marriage tweens and teens decide that creatures of the night make great Mr. Rights?  The new gods of vampires, women writers, have changed the romantic ratability of the undead.  Geez, it’s hard enough to deal with the fact my omega male body is so unworthy compared to human alpha males, but now women seek to mate with guys who have immortality, inhuman strength, and supernatural wealth as hot sexual attributes.  Man, now I’m really out of the sexual rat race.

What have these new gods wrought on the fictional landscape of our world?  I wonder if accepting the undead into the American melting pot is also happening in other multicultural societies around the world?  Storytellers have always been mythmakers and creators of imaginary pop-cultural stars.  Homer had a huge hit with his creation, Ulysses.  The whole mystery genre seems to have converted to writing character book series hoping to hit one out of the park by creating the next Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple.  Now both the mystery market and horror genre are churning endless variations on the vampire theme, each hoping to create an iconic vampire or vampire slayer. 

In my review of Dracula by Bram Stoker I took a backasswards approach to understanding vampires.  I falsely assumed writers were describing their vampires rather than creating them, by observing what they thought was the current pop-culture concept of a vampire.  And to a degree writers do steal their ideas from their peers and mentors.  This morning I had the revelation that every vampire is created in the image of their god. 

If I was to write a series of vampire stories, I’d invent a science fictional vampire because I like science fiction more than I do horror.  I’m not all that keen on bloodsucking, so I’d find some other way for my vampires to acquire the life essence of their victim, maybe a device that transfuses specific hormones or proteins that could be used to enhance health and thinking for a cyborg vampire.  If I wrote a series of books about my new high-tech-vamp that became successful, it would make me a god of a fictional creation, but I would have also changed the archetype of the vampire.

When I read Dracula I thought Bram Stoker had studied folk culture and had assembled his vampire, Count Dracula, from a selection of vampire models already in existence.  Now that I’m using the god metaphor for creators of fiction, I’m not so sure.  Count Dracula, and every successful vamp ever created by a wordsmith could each be a unique creation, fashioned in the image of their creator, so to say.

This explains why the current crop of vampires are less violent and very romantic – all the wildly successful new vampires are created by women authors.  Men writers want monsters to slay, while women want romantic retelling of the beauty and the beast myth.

Now I know my feminist friends are going to howl at my sexist generalization, but lets look at the evidence.   Here’s an easy one.  Women love Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.  To make it suitable for the average guy, Seth Grahame-Smith created Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  I could rest my case there, but I’ll go for overkill instead.

I think I can safely say that the Twilight series is mostly popular with women, and girls.  It’s much less obvious, but I’d say the Anne Rice and Charlaine Harris vampire books are also more popular with women readers then men.  True Blood, the HBO version of the Sookie Stackhouse Southern Vampire Mysteries, has been transformed by its producers to have a unisex appeal (mixing love, romance, sex and violence), so I’m only talking about the Charlaine Harris books for now.  If you compare these women vampire stories to Blade and Van Helsing movies, which are obviously targeted to male audiences, you can see the difference between the vampires and their creators.

Red blooded American males love violent movies.  They want the moral issues to be black and white so there is no ethical squeamishness to full-throttle slaying by the good guys.  Literary movies that want to question violence will introduce many shades of gray and ambiguity, but for the most part, us guys like our action films, monster movies, cop shows, sci-fi, thrillers, war flicks, and westerns to be non-stop kill, kill, kill.  We accepted feminism to the point that in recent years the good guys can include hot action babes on their teams, who can also kill, kill, kill with the best of the guys.  We’ll even accept women as squad leaders, as in Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.

Now, I’m not saying there aren’t plenty of women who love a dab of violence in their books and movies, but they seem to want the volume of violence turned down.  Women writers accept that vampires are dangerous cold blooded killers, but they keep most of their hunting off stage, ignore that vampires are evil, and tame them by having their creatures of the night only hunt animals, drink artificial blood or prey on the scum of the earth, humans they figure humanity can do without.

The famous dictate of writing teachers is to write what you know, but I observe instead, that writers write about what they love to read.  Women love romance stories, and the influx of women writers has changed the nature of vampires in pop culture in the last few decades.  If you study romance novels, a category of fiction dominated by women writers and readers, you’ll find two general types of stories in the genre:  the purely romantic and the hot-and-spicy romantic.  To be clear, I’m calling some romance novels hot-and-spicy, to be nice, but the heat on that spice goes all the way to XXX. 

Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series is very close to the Pride and Prejudice end of the spectrum of romance, while Charlaine Harris writes stories well into the soft core porn range of romance books.  And if you are converting Mr. Darcy into the undead, women writers know their readers won’t feel the emotional attraction for a protagonist if he’s too evil or looks like he belongs in a Mad Max flick.  Thus the What Not to Wear overhaul of vampires.

A young woman at my office asked another young women, “Which of the undead do you think are the sexiest?”  That’s not a question you would have overheard two Victorian women discussing.  I’d say the vampire has gotten the role of most eligible supernatural bachelor more often than all the other types of undead combined, with hunky werewolves a distant second in popularity.  Zombies and mummies just don’t clean up well.  Although J. K. Rowling, strangely enough seems to prefer werewolves over vamps, so maybe kids like furry love romance.

If you think about it, the lady gods of fiction have transformed all the popular genre fiction in the last fifty years.  Look how wildly successful Lois McMaster Bujold, Catherine Asaro and Anne McCaffrey have been with science fiction readers.  Genre fiction has been liberated by females.  I don’t know why it took me so long to realize why modern vampires are so different.  To be honest, I didn’t expect women to shake things up so much.

But I’m still puzzled as to why women find vampires sexy.  If I was a vampire and had to drink blood, I’d want to dine on women, and it would be a sexual attraction, but it would still feel like rape.  But as a male human, vampires seem as sexual appealing as sharks and bears, but then I’ve always identified with the beast, and not the beauty.

JWH – 7/23/9

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Dracula by Bram Stoker amazed me by how thoroughly Christian it portrays it’s 19th century worldview.  Published in 1897, this late Victorian novel doesn’t proselytize, but accepts Christianity like the rising of the Son.  Dracula is about a creature of the darkness invading the world of the light.  More than that, Dracula is about a royal citizen from the land of superstition making a beachhead on the Mecca of Modernity, London.   Dracula is about evil attacking the divine, which is very strange when when you compare this most famous of all vampires to contemporary vamps of the big and little screen. 

Dracula presents a scared world, whereas True Blood and Twilight represent secular vampirism.  How did our pop culture go from women pleading for their hearts to be staked,  their heads to be cut off, and their mouths crammed with garlic, if they were kissed by the vampire, to our modern times where virginal tweens willing dream of letting blood sucking monsters pop their cherry, but only if he’s really really really cute, dresses fabulously, and loves to cuddle.  Talk about living in Bizarro World.

Now, let me set up my definition of evil and divine.  Evil has become a debased word in our language.  For example, we might hear a kid whine, “That’s just evil,” when told he must turn off the TV and do his homework.  Most grownups would use Hitler as their prime example of real evil, but even for that example I will disagree.  I see the word evil coming with a more precise definition.  To be upfront, I’m an atheist, so any discussion of religion by me is from an outside observer.

My definition of evil, is any action that’s under the influence of Satan, whereas the divine, is any action inspired by God.  Modern grammarians will knock my prescriptive definition over more mundane descriptive grammar.  Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a novel with easy metaphors.  Light shines from God, dark is Satan blocking the light.  Vampires are agents of evil, stealing souls from the forces of goodness.

I plead with my readers to read the history of vampires at Wikipedia.  I was totally shocked by examples of vampirism showing up in all the cultures of history.  Superstition has dominated thinking for most of homo sapiens time roaming this Earth.  Vampires and similar scary ghoulish characters are deeply rooted in all our folklore, and its very shocking how crazed our ancestors became over common fears. 

Count Dracula is just the most famous vampire in Western pop culture, where Bram Stoker hit a vein of subconscious literary gold.  Dracula is not the first novel about vampires, but Bram Stoker has invented such a successful fictional character, Count Dracula, whose fame is on the order of Sherlock Holmes (1887) and Tarzan (1912), the true eminent Victorians.  Stoker may have used Vlad the Impaler as inspiration for his character Count Dracula, but he is mostly a fantastic fictional invention.

I’ve always avoided reading Dracula because I expected it to be as hokey as the Béla Lugosi films, so I was greatly surprised by how literate and well-written this epistolary novel is compared to all the cheesy films it has inspired.  By using letters, telegrams, diaries, phonograph cylinders, newspaper clippings, etc., Stoker gives an immediacy to his story that the standard third person narrative would have lacked, and was still too confining to express in the standard first person tale.  The novel is full of rich details, especially about living and travel in Europe in the late 1800s.  The story progresses slowly, relying on a slow buildup of horror, with little direct stage time for Count Dracula himself.  This works very effectively to showcase life in 1897, when news traveled very slowly, and generally came by word of mouth or newspapers.

I claim Dracula is a Christian novel because its worldly philosophy is based on the British viewpoint at the peak of its empire, with it’s stout, stiff-upper lip embrace of Jesus, scientific progress and world conquest.  Abraham Van Helsing, a Dutchman, is the real hero of this novel, but he’s not the action hero of the Hugh Jackman film Van Helsing.  He’s an older doctor and lawyer, wise man of science, and early X-Files philosopher, who is deeply religious and accepting of the Christian faith.  Makes no bones about it, Count Dracula is an invader of England and the divinely backed civilization of Christ.

Dracula is an intimate novel, with Van Helsing, the prototype for Rupert Giles I’m sure, as Watcher, leading his merry band of vampire slayers, who must keep their war secret because they know few people can accept the truth about the undead, and nothing they can ever say will be believed, and all their actions will be considered law breaking and criminal.

Out on the border between darkness and light, Count Dracula lives in remote Transylvania, where the medieval mind still dominates the peasant population.  The story begins with Jonathan Harker’s long trip to Dracula’s castle, that chronicles moving backwards in time as he leaves the civilization of the west, heading east, via devolving forms of transportation.  The descriptions of his travels are rich with details, making me think Stoker had made the trip himself.

The story involves two women, Mina and Lucy, and five men, Harker, Seward, Morris, Holmwood and Van Helsing, and takes a leisurely time to unfold.  Each get to tell their story in first person through the trick of the epistolary novel.  This could be confusing with so many characters, but I listened to a version of the novel narrated by John Lee, which was fantastic in its presentation, making quite clear the identity of each narrator.  This novel is well worth the trouble of listening to slowly, in a good audio book edition. 

I especially loved the character of Quincey Morris, a laconic Texan that greatly reminded me of another American cowboy, Lee Scoresby, also inhabiting a British fantasy novel, set in the 19th century, The Golden Compass, and played by Sam Elliot in the film, who has lassoed and hogtied many a laconic Texan role, even to the point of satire, as in The Big Lebowski.  Quincey Morris is a young Lee Scoresby in Dracula, and one of Lucy’s three suitors.

Psychiatry even plays a roll in Dracula, with John Seward, a head of an insane asylum that contains yet another fascinating character in the novel, R. M. Reinfield, whose mind swings between vivid sanity and raving madness.  It’s a shame his story couldn’t have been in on the round-robin of first person narratives.  Reinfield’s madness and Mina’s hypnosis induced telepathy, is used by Stoker in a creative way to drive the plot forward, beyond the standard letter and diary knowledge.  For its time, Dracula is a very creative novel, that remains fresh and powerful in its narrative techniques.

Dracula represents an entire spectrum of communication, from God’s divine will, to the woo-woo world of ESP and the scientific telegraph, to shadowy unconscious minds sending up clues to the conscious minds of our heroes to decipher, while Satan commands his legions of undead with his will of evil whispering out of the darkness.  And here is where we define evil, where dark and light fight for the soul of humans, by claiming evil is the force that chaos uses to conquer order, and the divine is that force that civilizes.  This definition should work for my spiritual friends, as well as me and my secular unbelieving pals.

Dracula is an agent of the devil, so, why do our modern vampire scribes like Charlaine Harris and Stephenie Meyer secularize the vampire, exorcising its true evil nature?  Women often lust for the bad boys of society, and these women writers are making alpha vamps the sexiest of the stereotype.  Why is that?  Maybe women no longer want cavemen, Conan the Barbarian types, but prefer the better dressed, well-mannered vampire, with his suave sophisticated ways.  Or, is the enticing appeal of vampires, their power to give everlasting youth, something all women would sell their souls to get?  But something weird is happening.  Women have switched from wanting Van Helsing and Quincey Morris as males to swoon over, to wanting their fictional dream dates to be Edward Cullen and Bill Compton.

Sookie Stackhouse and her lady friends of Bon Temps, Louisiana, would be considered vamp tramps in Bram Stoker’s time.  If you want to know the philosophical difference from 1897 and 2009, read Dracula and then watch True Blood on HBO.  If we could send Victorian readers a television set and DVR loaded HBO’s True Blood and Deadwood and ShowTime’s Dexter, they would all believe that Van Helsing lost the battle in Dracula, and Count Dracula succeeded in his invasion of the British Isles and eventually conquered the Western world.

And don’t you find it rather ironic that an atheist is pointing out that popular modern entertainment represents the success of 19th century evil over the providence of the divine?  In the Sookie Stackhouse Southern Vampire Mysteries, the Christians are seen as the bad guys, and portrayed as buffoons impassioned by gun love, but ignored sexually and made cuckolds by lusty wives tempted by bad boys.

I love watching True Blood and Dexter, but then I’m an unbeliever.  It’s what my conservative friends expect of a yellow-dog, scum sucking, NY Times reading, liberal.   What I’m wondering is why all those hordes of Twilight fans, those young girls and their clean-cut moms, women who wouldn’t unzip their jeans for nice boys, and bitch at any bad boy they met, have fallen madly in love with the pretty vampire.  When I grew up, the only good vampire was a staked vampire.  I was taught it was perfectly ethical, even heroic, to kill vamps and Nazis, neither of which had souls.  Now Spike, the Vampire, will go to the ends of the Earth to find a soul and gain the love of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer.  We certainly live in topsy-turvy times.

But let’s get serious here.  What is really happening?  Are secular vampires really a product of liberal thought, where every frail human action must be forgiven and understood?  Charlaine Harris presents her vampires seeking civil rights, and compares them to gays coming out of the closet.  But is this going too far, isn’t civilizing vampires wrong?  Isn’t it unjust to compare civil rights and gays to savage killers?   Why does popular culture now romance the evil?  Dexter wins sympathetic feelings for serial killers, so should we expect a lovable but loopy child molester in some future premium channel drama that will warm our hearts?  If we could see ourselves from some outside pop culture viewpoint, would we look like skinheads embracing a warm and fuzzy Hitler?

Or is it just good clean fun, like when we let our tykes play with Grand Theft Auto.  Personally, I wonder if it is wrong, either ethically, or morally, to have the entertainment appetite of a Roman at the Coliseum.  Or can I justify my entertainment tastes by rationalizing that it explores the edges of social reality?  Dracula is good clean fiction, but what has Bram Stoker planted in Victorian times, that has flowered in our modern world, causing us to love the vampire?  Actually, I don’t love the vampire, and still want to see them dusted, so maybe I just jealous of Bill, Edward and Eric. 

This leads to the next level of psychology of vampire stories, the one below good and evil.  Something is happening here, and I don’t know what it is, but I’m thinking it has to do with the changing roles of women in society.  Bram Stoker started it by giving Mina and Lucy, equal time with men, and equal bravery, showing that Count Dracula only converts women to his way of life.  Why are the leading writers of modern vampire stories, Anne Rice, Charlaine Harris and Stephenie Meyer, all women?  What would Sigmund Freud make of all of this?

Does the acceptance of vampires merely model the acceptance of male psychology by women?  Vampires are violent killers, but so are men.  Vampires enslave the souls of women, but so do men.  And if biting throats are equated with sexual intercourse, vampires and men both seek to penetrate the female body.  Maybe Harris and Meyers just want tame the savage beast, dress him in romantic garb, polish his behavior and put his lustful appetite on a diet.  If this is true, then the trend of accepting modern vampires is merely women recognizing how far they have to go to get guys to dress GQ and stop our killing ways.

Up till now vampire stories have always been Christian stories because the standard issued weapons to fight vampires were the cross, host and holy water.  Vampire fiction in recent centuries are metaphors for the Catholic Church supplanting the ancient religions and superstitions.  Charlaine Harris’ vampire world has regressed to a pre-Christian pagan worldview in direct conflict with Christians.  Does that mean she’s a witch?  But then her vamps only fight Protestants. 

Contemporary revamp vamps represent a loss of Vatican power.  Is it any wonder Anne Rice and Charlaine Harris stories are set in Louisana, a former Catholic stronghold?  But as the power of God grows fainter, so does the power of Satan.  Vampire Edward is downright prissy compared to Count Dracula.  If this trend continues, the bottle blood drinking vamps of today will be supplanted by even wimpier vamps in the future.  Without God there is no Evil, leaving a reality of random dangers fought by the force of evolution to produce order.  Vampires are supernatural creatures, and if our secular world erases all belief in the supernatural, what happens to vampires?

In other words, atheism kills vampires just like Holy Water.

JWH – 7/20/9

Skills for Kens and Barbies

When little girls play with their Barbie and Ken dolls and have the couple drive around in their sports car, if they get a flat, which doll do the little girls expect to fix the tire?  This week was Barbie’s 50th birthday.  It was also the week I ran across “Should you be reading that magazine?” which is about an article in Popular Mechanics, “100 Skills Every Man Should Know.”  By the authority of Popular Mechanics, Ken should be the doll that knows how to change a tire.  The editors believe Barbie should acquire  her life  skills by reading their sister magazine, Good Housekeeping, but I bet Barbie studies Cosmo.

During the same week President Obama created the new White House Council on Women and Girls.  The council is charged with making sure each federal agency works to improve the economic status of women, develop policies that establish a balance between work and family, prevent violence against women, build healthy families and promote women’s health care.  It doesn’t sound like the White House is trying to rekindle feminism, but rather make paternal laws to protect women.

This week President Obama also made moves to change the Bush’s policies that were anti-science by signing a memorandum “directing the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop a strategy for restoring scientific integrity to government decision making.”  Obama wants to make vast changes in education, including a renewed emphasis on science and mathematics.

Now all of these diverse topics might sound unconnected, but I see a thread.  Fifty years ago Barbie caused a controversy because parents wanted their little girls to play with dolls that looked like little babies, expecting their daughters to grow up to be mothers.  Little girls wanted to play with Barbie because they wanted to grow up to be big girls like Barbie.  They wanted long legs, a nice rack and lots of fashionable clothes, and of course a boyfriend that can change a tire on her sports car.  Was there ever Nobel Prize winning Barbie, or even aerospace engineer Barbie?  There was an astronaut Barbie, but I get the feeling little girls didn’t imagine her being a shuttle payload specialist, but instead just pictured her as a cute space girl like Barbarella.

If President Obama wants to empower little girls, should he encourage them to play with Hilary Clinton dolls?  Should his White House Commission come down hard on the editors of Popular Mechanics?  Should girls take shop class with the boys in school?  When I took shop in the 8th and 9th grade there were no girls in our class.  And us boys never saw the inside of a home economics class.  Is that still true today?

According to Natalie Angier’s The Canon we’re having a damn hard time getting boys or girls to stick with math and science.  Understanding science means understanding reality.  Science can explain why little girls play with Barbies and why the writers and readers of Popular Mechanics expect men to know their 100 specialized skills while women should study Good Housekeeping for important skills that all females should know.

If girls and women must fulfill their biological programming as well as the meet the biological expectations of men, while following guidelines for living set down by ancient patriarchal religions will they ever be free?  And fifty years ago, did Barbie reveal a shift in girl’s behavior?  Was Barbie a step forward in feminism?  Barbie throws off the burka of playing the mommy role to play the part of the hot babe, which is astoundingly documented in the history of the cinema and television since then.

President Obama campaigned on the promise of change, but our society is changing all the time.  The question is how much can we change.  Are there limits?  Will there one day be a new fad doll on the market that little girls take to like Barbie?  A doll that reflects a new generation of women?  Are the sexy outfits Western women wear the burkas imposed on them the males of our society, or do they reflect what women actually want to wear?  (In other words, does Barbie reveal that girls want to grow up to be the Sex in the City girls?)  Does the political shift in the White House towards women represent a new deal for women?  Is it a liberal step forward or does it merely add more protection and care of females?  Is that the role women want?  The majority of women pulled up on the reigns on feminism well before Bush.

Now that Obama is in the White House we can go back and pick up where liberal progress left off, but will we?  If you analyze the undercurrent of change, we only want progress in certain areas and not others.  Even in liberal times there are conservative genes in us that never get turned off.

JWH – 3/13/9 (revised 3/18/9)